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The Joys of Listening

Robert Kapilow spreads the gospel of classical music through lively, interactive workshops with children and adults

'I'm convinced that if you could change how America listens, you could change America," says conductor-composer Robert Kapilow, creator of a highly successful series of workshops and concerts for family audiences. And in the presence of Mr. Kapilow's zealotry, you can almost imagine it happening.

Kapilow is a man on a mission, passionately committed to a variety of programs that bring classical music to the masses in ways that make a lasting impression on the way people listen, both to music and to the world around them.

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"Though you're trying to teach over the course of a program to have an engaged, participatory conversation with a piece of music or dance, in the end, you're really trying to teach them to have that kind of participatory engagement with the world around them. It's all listening for possibility," he says.

Kapilow broadly terms his passion "an access project for America" to bring people to classical music in creative, meaningful ways. His enthusiasm takes many guises, including a variety of outreach endeavors, from the intensive family music workshops called "Family Musik" to his acclaimed "What Makes It Great" segment on public radio's "Performance Today."

Besides the "Family Musik" series, current projects include the "MusiConnection" program in Kansas City, Mo.; the "New Wings" program for the New Jersey Chamber Music Society; and full-length "What Makes It Great" evenings for adults.

It began with a crisis of faith Kapilow experienced some 10 years ago. Busy as a composer, guest conductor, and educator, he began to question what it all meant. "I was very disenchanted. I adored classical music, but America as an audience didn't seem interested. So, I decided I wouldn't do this anymore or I would try to change things, and what I came up with was an idea to try to get audiences really interested in what turned me on about this music."

He offered a free presentation at Rutgers University in New Jersey he called "What Makes It Great," and attracted 50 people to a dissection of a Mozart-sonata exposition. "The idea was, 'Here's all the great stuff that normally goes by, that you normally might not get.' Then after two hours, we played the exposition and people went wild. They never expected that they could really get it, measure by measure, and be so turned on."

He repeated the process with different music the following week and the local press picked up on it, spreading the word of Kapilow's extraordinary zeal. Within a month, he did his first television show, "What Makes Mozart Great." "It made me realize that people are dying for this, that they feel very shut out from classical music, that there's a lot they would like to know but don't have a route into the actual content of the music."

As the father of three young children, Kapilow felt his musical ideas could naturally be extended to include the younger set, and "Family Musik" has become one of his most acclaimed endeavors. After a successful run at the 92nd Street Y in New York, it debuted in Boston this season as part of the Bank of Boston's Celebrity Series. Plans are in place for Kapilow to return next season.

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The Boston series included three family workshops complemented by two concerts of the highest caliber. The first, which focused on the basic elements of composition, featured soprano Angelina Reaux, two terrific child actors, and the Boston Chamber Music Society in the world premire of Kapilow's "Gertrude McFuzz" and "Green Eggs and Ham."

The second concert took Stravinsky's familiar "A Soldier's Tale" in an entirely different direction. Five movements from the work were excerpted and used as the foundation for new, kid-friendly movement by Broadway choreographer Janet Watson, and the concert evolved as an interactive exploration of two basic questions: What is an idea in dance? And how do you put ideas together into movement sentences to tell stories? In short order, Kapilow had hundreds of kids (and their parents) shimmying, marching, and pretending to throw a baseball.

Kapilow's presentations vary from traditional children's fare in a couple of crucial ways. The most critical is that workshops and concerts alike are highly interactive. "Music is not a passive thing," he says. "It should be like an engaged conversation. One of the things that's really bothered me about our culture is that it's such a passivity-inducing experience."

Kapilow himself works the crowd with a seemingly endless supply of high energy and bubbly good humor. Part evangelist, part effervescent game-show host, he takes his cordless mike into the fray to ask children questions and set up the show's overall concept. "What do you sound like when you're trying to get something you want? What do you do when you don't think something is fair?" The kids respond, then the instruments onstage do their own versions of wheedling, whining, and pouting. When those emotions bubble to the surface as Gertrude McFuzz sings "This just isn't fair - she has two, I have one," the musical connections are crystal clear.

"They have to live and hear and feel the experience of music physically or it doesn't become real," he says. "Once they have some participation in it, they have some ownership of it."

Kapilow's philosophy also differs from that of most standard presenters in his conviction that it is the content of the music rather than any extraneous gimmicks that will bring kids into the fold. "I can get across something to kids that is fundamentally the same as I would teach in a Yale graduate course, only the vocabulary is different. That's what's great about this music. Without any sort of fakeness, you can get the real thing across, and it can be incredibly entertaining and exciting. But it has to have integrity of the highest order."

This conviction prompted Kapilow to compose his own works for children. A skilled craftsman who trained with Nadia Boulanger, Kapilow concocts lively, neoclassical scores that are colorfully accessible without being condescending. "Most music for children is either really, really bad or it's 'Peter and the Wolf.' I wanted something that would provide access and be relevant and fun but high quality, which is key."

Kapilow's setting of Dr. Seuss's beloved "Green Eggs and Ham" got the ball rolling. "That first performance happened to be completely sold out. There was a huge amount of publicity.... It sort of steamrolled ever since."

Kapilow parlayed the success into a publishing contract, a recording, and the 92nd Street Y's launch of "Family Musik."

Perhaps the most telling impact Kapilow has had on young audiences can be seen in Rochester, N.Y., where a group of 70 students from Eastman School of Music created an outreach program called "Music for All," inspired by Kapilow's "What Makes It Great."

"It can't just be me doing all this," Kapilow says. "I've created an opening and given them the exposure to get them started, and that's wonderful. With kids sometimes, it may just be a tiny opening, but that may be all it takes."

*A recording of Kapilow's 'Green Eggs and Ham,' by Dr. Seuss, is available on Koch International label.

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